Autopsy Points to Homicide in Chemist's Death

February 15, 2005
By DOUGLASS CROUSE
STAFF WRITERS
New York Post

It was a homicide.

A chemist found dead last week in a storage tank at a Totowa water treatment plant was killed, most likely by one of her co-workers, authorities said Monday.

Citing autopsy results, investigators said Geetha Angara drowned at the Passaic Valley Water Commission plant, where she had worked for 12 years, and said they are questioning its 85-member workforce in the search for suspects. They declined to give information about what specifically made them conclude the senior chemist's death was a homicide.

Already distraught over Angara's death, workers became more so with the revelation that someone among them may be to blame, personnel director James Gallagher said. From now on, he said, water testers and other employees will pair up as they make their rounds. Local and county law-enforcement officials plan to begin patrolling inside the plant as well.

"There are obviously concerns and we're going to deal with them by making changes, such as the partner system, to make employees feel safer," Gallagher said.

Angara, a 43-year-old mother of three, was last seen Feb. 8 at about 10 a.m. as she set out to test water quality. A plant manager reported her missing at 11:22 that night after colleagues noticed her car in the lot hours after her shift had ended. Police divers found her body in a drained below-ground tank the following evening. The tank is accessible only through a 4-foot-wide opening, which was covered by a heavy aluminum panel.

Authorities refused to say what sort of struggle may have preceded Angara's fall into 30 feet of near-freezing water. Early on, investigators had said her body showed no obvious signs of trauma. On Monday, they declined to say what additional information the autopsy had revealed.

Family members declined to comment on the homicide announcement, but they said last week that Angara had no known enemies or other work-related problems. The native of India had a doctorate from New York University and lived with her husband and three children in Holmdel. Funeral services were held over the weekend.

Passaic County Prosecutor James F. Avigliano said it was "very doubtful" that someone outside the plant could have slipped in and killed Angara. He left open that possibility, however.

"The only way someone could wander in is if they came from the area of the Passaic River or climbed over a 10-foot fence," Avigliano said.

The Passaic County Sheriff's Department and Totowa police plan to begin patrolling the plant grounds by car and foot for an indefinite period, authorities said. Until now, officers only drove around the plant's perimeter.

The company has no surveillance cameras in the building where Angara was working. A homeland security plan calls for installing cameras on the grounds and in some buildings, but that probably would not include water-testing areas, officials said.

As senior chemist, Angara was in charge of calibrating sensors that measure water clarity. Those monitors line a concrete corridor where she was last seen working, and sit above the tank where she was found dead.

Searchers found her body in a sump at one end of the tank. Her two-way radio, clipboard and a broken flask were found below the tank opening about 100 feet away, Avigliano said.

Investigators initially focused on the diamond-plated aluminum covering that lay over the tank's opening. The plate measures 3.5 feet by 4.5 feet and weighs about 50 pounds, authorities say. At 5-feet, 5-inches tall and 175 pounds, Angara probably would have had trouble prying it loose and lifting it herself, investigators say.

Investigators began interviewing plant employees last week and plan to speak with all 85 who work there, authorities said. A company spokesman refused to say how many were working at the time of Angara's disappearance. All have reported for work as scheduled since then, Avigliano said.

The prosecutor has voiced frustration that borough police waited 10 hours to alert his office to Angara's disappearance and allowed a family member to drive the victim's car home. Totowa Police Chief Robert Coyle has said his officers initially had no reason to suspect homicide when a plant manager called to say a worker was missing.

Also hampering detectives' efforts were the 13 hours that elapsed from the time Angara was last seen alive to the missing-person call. "This is going to be a difficult case," Avigliano said. "I'm just hoping through diligent work ... we're able to conclude it."

To aid last week's search, officials drained millions of gallons of water from the 35-foot-deep tanks at the plant, which processes 75 million gallons of drinking water each day.

The water commission's 800,000 customers did not have their service interrupted and tests showed no signs of contamination.

As a precaution, however, the company advised customers to boil their drinking water on Wednesday and provided water from alternative sources while the search was conducted.

Staff Writer Amy L. Kovac contributed to this article. E-mail: [email protected]

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